Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Family business #23. (1976)

Once, at a school parents' evening, Mum had a timed slot booked to see my English teacher, Miss Rees. I can't remember for sure now but I think Rees might have been my form teacher as well. When Mum arrived, Miss Rees wasn't there.
At my next English lesson Rees apologised and asked if there was anything in particular Mum had wanted to talk about. It was clear my mum was down for the one of the later slots and Rees had decided to knock off early.
Although I don't think Rees was the only teacher Mum was down to see, it struck me as shoddy. As Rees had mentioned it in the lesson it seemed likely that I was the only person it had happened to. I had the sense then, and still do now, that it wouldn't have happened if Mum hadn't been a lone parent.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Random access memory # 60. (1987)

The most important change in my working life happened soon after I moved to Deptford.
I'd just left a telephone sales job for a firm that sold lighting equipment. In the Jobcentre I saw an advert for a job as an admin officer at the local Unemployment Benefit Office.
Politically, I was already a strong believer in the welfare state, so I asked about the job. That was the first time I actively chose a job for my own reasons, rather than just settling for whatever was available.
I almost fell at the first. The job required 5 'O' levels or equivalent. I had 4 'O' levels from school and an 'A' level from an evening class. The woman at the Jobcentre told me, incorrectly, that this wasn't enough. I think I might have asked her to check.
I got the job. I was only there a few months. That was where I met my first love.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Random access memory # 59. (1972)

RK, the doctor's daughter, and SH, were the two girls universally and enduringly derided as teachers' pets at primary school. During the industrial unrest of the early 1970s SH was asked to read out a composition she'd written in front of the rest of the class. It was critical of striking workers and described an invented scenario where somebody died during surgery due to a power cut, or some such Daily-Express-style nonsense.
In the piece she used the word 'electric' when she meant 'electricity'. I knew that was wrong and had a satisfying little sneer to myself. I would have been about ten. I think even then I was beginning to have a feel for which side my bread was buttered politically.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Random access memory # 58. (1978)

Mr Gall the English teacher got us to do a talk to the rest of the class on a subject of our own choosing. I did mine about illegal drugs. I pursued my interest in the subject more directly later in my teens.
Gall was really impressed and my classmates seemed interested. It made me feel good.
S H, who'd always been teacher's pet even from primary school, did her talk about a school skiing trip she'd been on. Even at the time it seemed to me from her approach that she might have had some coaching, or got a book out of the library on public speaking. She incorporated a visual element by pointlessly drawing the ski-lift on the blackboard. She also tried to introduce an element of humour, which fell completely flat and, I thought, just made her look a dick. She always seemed like she was trying a bit too hard.
I thought my presentation was better and more interesting than hers and that felt satisfying. Although I was nervous about doing the presentation, at least I turned up. MC went off sick that day for the first and last time in her school career. It was suspected to be a ruse to avoid doing the presentation. She was odd and thin and serious and I fancied her slightly.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Family business #22. (1973).

The Long Lost Sister was, I think, the first person I encountered who would express what could loosely be called a social conscience. I mostly remember it from comments she made.
She retold a story about the diminutive black weightlifter Precious McKenzie, who featured regularly on TV's Record Breakers at the time. McKenzie rang a bed and breakfast to book a room. Inferring from his surname that he was Scottish (and white) the landlady duly took the booking. When he turned up the landlady refused to honour the booking, claiming it was a misunderstanding and she'd 'thought he was Scottish'. The Long Lost Sister was critical of the racism of the landlady.
She also commented on TV programmes of the time like 'Edna the Inebriate Woman' about a street-homeless alcoholic, and 'Gale Is Dead', a documentary about a young woman who'd died of a heroin overdose. In each case she expressed empathy for these people.
Nobody else I knew talked about that kind of thing, in that way. In some small way, it was an influence on my thinking, an early clue to the importance of a sense of affiliation with others.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Random access memory # 57. (1984)

During my last year in my hometown, when I was desperate to get away from the Fat Controller's house, DG offered to rent me the spare room in the flat he shared with his girlfriend. As it was, I already had a solid plan in place for moving to London so there didn't seem much point taking up the offer just for a few months.
Not long before, he'd invited me to join his band on second guitar even though I couldn't play well.
He was part of a social set I'd previously gone round with, but with whom I'd severed contact following a drug-fuelled freak-out.
I began having guitar lessons with a failed musician on Hendford Hill and I guess DG had seen me walking through town with my guitar, on the way to these.
DG invited himself round one evening and I showed him a couple of songs I'd written. That was probably the first time he'd been round that house even though I'd known him since I was five.
I'm not sure why he was so kind to me about the flat and the band, as we'd never particularly got on. There may have been an element of pity involved, perhaps because I was seen by that group of acquaintances as having gone mad, or perhaps because of the state of the Fat Controller's house, which, thinking back, wasn't far off being a slum.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Lifetime underachievement award # 16. (1992).

In my late teens I made a couple of faltering attempts at playing music with other people but it wasn't until I was about thirty that I plucked up the courage to try again. As I had few friends, and none of those musical, I answered an ad in Loot magazine. One of these resulted in me playing with a covers band which would rehearse ad infinitum in the drummer's Hither Green council flat.
There was never a serious intention to gig live but it was fun, and useful experience. I'd get the train down to Hither Green for rehearsals. One time I bumped into Mark the drummer at the station. He was running late and was on his way home. He'd been eating some sort of pie. His face was covered in flaky pastry debris.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Random access memory # 56. (1982).

When I still lived in my hometown we'd travel great distances to reach any entertainment on offer. One weekend a couple of carloads of us trekked about 30 miles to an open air gig on a clifftop just above Seatown. The gig was arranged by one of the two bands; The Lusty Romans. They'd rigged up a makeshift awning from a tarpaulin in case of rain, and got hold of a generator.
We gathered first in the pub in the bay. I remember the beer being terrible, flat and badly kept as it often was in those days. We then headed up to the windswept cliffs. I forget what the music was like in detail – fairly standard homegrown, ham-fisted local punk I suspect. The Lusty Romans' bassist had a Rickenbacker bass. It may have been a copy but I thought it looked fantastic regardless.
Proceedings were curtailed by a middle-aged bloke turning up to announce that we were on National Trust land and that we 'couldn't do that there, here' or something to that effect. I assume he worked for the National Trust thought it seems odd that he was on duty at that time of night. It's possible he was just some zealous member of the citizenry.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Welcome to the working week # 16. (1992).

While I was working at the homeless persons' unit there was an acrimonious strike over discriminatory treatment of its black workers.
I joined my workmates on picket duty, which I always try to do during strike action.
Of the few people who tried to go into work, most were non-union staff. The exception was one union member who insisted on crossing the line. Andy, the shop steward, pointed out the strike had been called democratically. This character then stated that 'Democracy led to Dachau' before turning his back and walking into work, leaving Andy spluttering in disbelief.
I'd worked with the character in question for some time. He'd always struck me as an opinionated, condescending dickhead.
Not long afterwards I left to do an MA. I got a studenship from the British Academy, which I later discovered was highly sought after and hard to get. As soon as the bloke heard about this his attitude to me changed completely. He started brown-nosing round me, saying his son had applied for the same funding unsuccessfully, and I'd done well to get it. I thought his change in attitude towards me spoke volumes about him, and not in a good way.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Lifetime underachievement award # 15. (1991).

After completing my degree I tried to settle to writing my novel. Notionally, I set aside the evenings to write. It was my habit at the time to buy two cans of Holsten Pils on the way home. I'd start writing and start drinking, supposedly so I could relax enough to write.
Because of the alcohol, each evening, sooner rather than later, my mind would become sufficiently absent to make writing an impossibility. My thoughts would wander and I'd just end up staring into space.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

If you're so clever... # 25. (1995).

When I was doing stand up comedy I became friendly with a woman comic who was on the same open-mic circuit. We didn't see each other socially but would always chat when we played the same gigs.
I arrived at one gig to find her stood at the bar putting in her contact lenses. I greeted her and said, 'That's what you need in this business -contacts!' She seemed impressed.
She was beautiful, had been to Oxford or Cambridge and had quite a prestige job on a national newspaper. She once rang me at home for a chat, while she was bored at work and her colleagues were in an editorial meeting. It seemed clear that she liked me. It was only a few years later that it occurred to me she may have possibly fancied me.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Family business #21. (1975)

Brother M left home when he was eighteen and I was eleven. He managed his first supermarket in Wareham, Dorset. He'd come home at weekends to see his mates and get his washing done. On these return visits he'd complain about how boring Wareham was. He'd joke that the locals would watch the traffic lights change for entertainment.
I think those early years away may have been quite lonely for him, reading between the lines. Although he's a sociable person his work meant he moved often, in the early days, sometimes staying in some fairly bleak accommodation.
Perhaps one of the decisive differences between him and me is that I spent ages pining for the things my family weren't able to provide. He, perhaps sensibly, went out and looked for them elsewhere the first chance he got.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Family business #20. (1987-1990).

I don't think I spoke to any of my family about my dad's suicide until I was about thirty. But I did at least mention it to a few friends, especially after I moved to London.
Their responses varied wthin a fairly limited range, but I think I was glad for almost any response as an indication that I hadn't imagined it all. They confirmed that something had happened, while, to me at least, my family acted as if nothing had occurred.
When I told my friend P he said I was remarkably well-adjusted. I'm not sure anybody would say that about me now.
When I told Mary she said, 'That's quite serious,' which I welcomed as recognition of what it meant to me.
After I split up with La Scala I went to see the student counsellor at Goldsmiths' for an initial assessment as I was feeling low. When I mentioned my dad's suicide to the counsellor she actually winced. I thought she would have heard it all before, but any professional inscrutability dropped clean off her face.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Random access memory # 55. (1993)

Some while after I'd split up with La Scala and she'd got her own flat nearby, she locked herself out by mistake. She came round to use the phone to ring a locksmith. While she waited she pointed out the dirty state of my flat. She said, 'Why don't you clean? Then you could invite somebody back here.' She pretty clearly meant a woman. And not her. She always seemed keen for me to meet somebody else after we split up. I'm unsure how much of that was out of concern for me and how much was to make sure I was properly over her and off her hands.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Random access memory # 54. (1968).

For some of my childhood I shared the upstairs bedroom with my two older brothers. I loved the lino in that room. The pattern consisted of Jackson Pollock style dots in regular diagonal blocks. I was intrigued and attracted by the way the pattern repeated.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Lifetime underachievement award # 14. (1996).

Doing stand-up comedy could be a strangely unpredictable experience, although with practice I gained more control over how gigs went. I once did an open spot to what felt like a huge audience near Hampton Court. There was a stag party in on the night, who heckled me relentlessly. I ploughed on regardless.
Afterwards, 18 people came up to me and congratulated me on my performance. Even now I remember counting the well-wishers off in my head as I made my way home, which is how I can be confident of the number after all this time.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Lifetime underachievement award # 13. (1995).

I did stand-up comedy in my spare time from late 1994 to about March 1996. I'd sometimes do an open-mic spot at the Samuel Pepys pub, in Hackney. It was inconvenient to get to but it was one of the few such nights that ran on a Monday.
The pub was rough. At the time it was the only pub I'd been to where street homeless people actually came round begging inside the pub.
The bloke who ran the night always wore a blue sequinned cape, and seemed a bit spaced out. I read some while later in Time Out magazine that he was a traffic warden in real life, who was in recovery from some major drug problems, which might have explained his befuddled demeanour.
The acts were a peculiar bunch. There was an elderly gay poet who did a poem about fucking men in the armpit.
Another poet used to regularly do a song that heavily featured the refrain, 'Theresa the vegan chef!' He'd accompany himself with his rudimentary harmonica playing. This song would often go on for a solid fifteen minutes uninterrupted.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Lifetime underachievement award # 13. (1995).

I did stand-up comedy in my spare time from late 1994 to about March 1996. I'd sometimes do an open-mic spot at the Samuel Pepys pub, in Hackney. It was inconvenient to get to but it was one of the few such nights that ran on a Monday.
The pub was rough. At the time it was the only pub I'd been to where street homeless people actually came round begging inside the pub.
The bloke who ran the night always wore a blue sequinned cape, and seemed a bit spaced out. I read some while later in Time Out magazine that he was a traffic warden in real life, who was in recovery from some major drug problems, which might have explained his befuddled demeanour.
The acts were a peculiar bunch. There was an elderly gay poet who did a poem about fucking men in the armpit.
Another poet used to regularly do a song that heavily featured the refrain, 'Theresa the vegan chef!' He'd accompany himself with his rudimentary harmonica playing. This song would often go on for a solid fifteen minutes uninterrupted.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Family business #19. (1970).

There was always a firework display for Guy Fawkes' night at the local recreation ground. I remember Brother M buying a mug of Bovril at a stall there. I'm not sure if he'd come with me and mum, or we'd just bumped into him there. I suspect it was the latter. Even then, he was very much off doing his own thing.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Random access memory # 53. (1968).

On top of Barclays bank in my home town there was a dome, which must have been made of copper. It always looked bright green against the sky, however dull that sky might have been. Mum explained it was verdigris that caused this. The word verdigris appealed to me for some reason.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Random access memory # 52. (2000)

My Chinese friend, K, was a notably messy eater. We went together to visit a mutual friend at the housing co-op in Stratford where she lived.
She made us all a meal. Travelling back on the Tube, K found a piece of bread from the meal wedged inside his shoe. Even by his standards he'd surpassed himself.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Family business #18. 2012.

As my mum's dementia progressed I started going down to Somerset every Friday on Megatrain so me and Brother D could spend the day with her and give her a break from the Fat Controller's impatience and aggression.
There was a point on the journey where the train would always pause alongside an open field. It always felt like a moment for quiet reflection. One day there were two hares chasing each other in the field. Even at that distance I could tell they were hares rather than rabbits. I think that's the first time I'd seen hares.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Random access memory # 51. 1984

I was involved in the Labour Party Young Socialists during the Miners' Strike. The local party branch was twinned with Tower Lodge colliery near Pontypridd, which was later collectively run by the workforce.
The Christmas of 1984 I decided that I'd agree with family that we wouldn't exchange presents. Instead, I'd donate the money I saved to the miners' hardship fund.
Mum was going to a miners' benefit event at the Labour Club so she handed over my donation. The miner who accepted it gave her an NUM tiepin to pass on to me as a thank you. It meant a lot to me at the time. I've probably still got it somewhere.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Welcome to the working week # 15. 1979

The premises at my first job were round the back of a tyre garage. The tyre garage staff always had Radio One playing full-blast which I could hear in the cubby hole on the mezzanine where I sat pricing invoices all day.
We shared toilets with them. These were never cleaned. The toilet bowl, urinal and washbasin were always black with grime. My stepbrother's then girlfriend worked there as a tyre fitter.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Random access memory # 50. 1993.

Soon after Stephen Lawrence got murdered there was a big protest march to get the BNP bookshop in Welling closed down.
On the coach to the protest I read New Grub Street by George Gissing as it was required reading on the English MA I'd just started.
We didn't get near the bookshop and for most of the time were redirected by the police along a stretch of closed-off dual carriageway. I remember a woman dressed head to toe in black with a baseball bat poking out of her backpack.
At one point troops of black lads in their teens and twenties were running on the spot in blocks, chanting, 'Too black, too strong!'. I was struck by the power of their self-discipline.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Random access memory # 49. 1984-1985

Mensa used to put small ads in the Daily Mirror in the form of puzzles. You were supposed to complete them within a given time and if you scored above a certain amount you could send in your answer and then sit a free invigilated test to see if you qualified to join.
I did a random test from the paper in the time allowed, without cheating, and scored 156; the score required for entry to Mensa was 140.
It was quite a while before I applied to do the invigilated test. I think I was just satisfied to have what was probably my first indication that I might be intelligent in a recognised way.
I took the invigilated test at ULU within a few months of moving to London. The other candidates struck me as fidgetting, jittery, weirdoes and I wasn't sure theirs was a club I wanted to join.
I scored 138. That test in the Mirror may have been one of the first things that made me think I might be able to go to university.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

If you're so clever... # 24. 1981

The first time I went out with someone, it was set up by my mate Simon. The young woman involved had apparently fancied me from a distance for a while. I was probably nineteen. I'd never kissed a girl before but had tried most of the illegal drugs that were available with the exception of heroin, which gives an indication of how well my life was going at the time.
Come the night, I decided to take the edge off my cringing shyness by necking some blues – cheap, rough amphetamine tablets popular at the time.
I took some before we met in the pub, then, thinking they weren't working, nipped out to the toilets to take some more. Still I felt tongue-tied the entire evening.
As the night went on, I sensed disappointment seeping into her like damp.
A day or so afterwards I rang her from the phonebox at the end of our road to apologise to her. She seemed puzzled and asked what I was apologising for. I don't remember what answer I gave. It didn't occur to me for a moment to ask her out again. Although strictly speaking I hadn't the first time. It was just sort of arranged.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Random access memory # 48. 1985

Soon after moving to London I decided to sample some fringe theatre. I went to see an adaptation of a Dostoevsky story in a pub theatre above the Bear and Ragged Staff off Charing Cross Road. All I remember about it is a female actor very self-consciously taking her top off. I'm fairly sure that was the first time I'd seen breasts in real life.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Family business #24. (1969).

Mum had quite a relaxed attitude to safety issues though I'm not sure how conscious this was, or whether it was just a feature of how preoccupied and overstretched she was as a lone parent bringing up 4 school age kids on her own.
One of my tasks when I was eight or nine was to tip caustic soda crystals onto the grate of the outside drain and pur boling water over them.
She also gave me the task of supervising and topping up the bonfire we'd have periodically in an old oil drum in the back garden. My favourite bit was draping a carrier bag on the end of a stick, letting it catch fire and watching the droplets of flaming, molten plastic falling off it. She'd leave me to get on with these tasks unsupervised. Perhaps she hoped to teach me responsibility, though I'm conscious that the usual approach is to buy you a gerbil.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Welcome to the working week # 17. (1984)

I've never felt comfortable with anything like deference, which has sometimes made it hard working with the public as much as I have.
At my second job I was dealing with a really posh customer who wanted to buy a lawnmower. He indicated the ones we had on display and said they might be fine for the houses nearby but weren't adequate for a property the size of the one he owned.
He wanted a sit-on mower. As he was chuntering on, another customer asked me a question. I answered the second customer, calling him 'mate'. The posh customer raised an eyebrow and said, 'I'm not your 'mate', young man.'
I looked at him and said, 'I wasn't talking to you.'